Following Through with More Time

Last week, I attended (virtually) the release of results of 21 urban districts that participated in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, commonly referred to as “the nation’s report card”). The Trial Urban District Assessment or TUDA, tests a representative sample of students in 4th and 8th grade to determine how schools in some of the nation’s largest districts are faring.  Overall, the findings were framed with a kind of cautious optimism because there were many positive signs—a rise in scores in both subjects at both grade levels for most districts—amidst the basic reality that most districts still trail national averages and exhibit yawning achievement gaps between students of different racial backgrounds. Likewise, in editorializing on the TUDA results, the Washington Post struck a similar tone, noting the “heartening” finding that proficiency had risen, but going on to say that “those proficiency levels are scandalously low — less than 25 percent, according to the NAEP — is a sobering reminder of how far the system has to go.”

And how should the District get where it has to go? The Washington Post suggests that the district look to the impressive performance of some of the neighborhood charter schools to understand how schools serving a substantially low-income population of students can enable high achievement:
One big advantage that charter schools offer low-income children is more time in school. An extended school day, weekend classes, a longer school year, and summer instruction are tools that successful charters have used to lift students disadvantaged by a home life that doesn’t include educational support.
For us, it is certainly encouraging to see the press following the same path of logic that drives our work at NCTL and, even better, ending up at the same place. Namely, if students are not performing at high levels in one set of schools, one should look to schools that are generating strong outcomes to analyze their practices and try to figure out what is making the difference for their students. Then, once these practices are identified, the lower-performing schools should adopt them in order to bring about success in their own schools, as well. And, like we have seen for ourselves, the press is now beginning to see that more learning time is one of the key levers.
The one note of caution we would add to this generally positive portrayal of expanded time arises from the mention in the Post editorial that “D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson told us that officials are examining ways to elongate the school day for students who are in most need of added class time.”  As pleased as we are to hear that D.C. is seeking to expand learning time, we do not want to see the District make the mistake of thinking that adding time in school is a simple matter of tacking on extra minutes and days for some students. Instead, school time must be utilized wisely: it must act as a catalyst to the implementation of a series of supportive practices that enhance learning for all students in a school. If added time is not framed as a whole-school strategy for reform, but merely as a limited resource provided only to a subset of students, then broad scale change will be much less likely to occur and, we fear, academic achievement will continue to be stuck at unacceptably low levels.
Here’s hoping that D.C. can follow the lead of their high-performing charters and bring about the kind of fundamental change in their schools that needs to—and, most importantly, CAN—happen.